Published: 2014-05-09 08:30 | Updated: 2014-06-03 14:44

New research findings attracted considerable international attention

Antonio Barragan and his research team at CIM, together with researchers from Uppsala University, published a new study on the parasite Toxoplasma gondii in the journal PLoS Pathogens in December. It was the beginning of a very intense week where media from around the world contacted them.

Antonio Barragan. Photo: Bosse Johansson.

The parasite Toxoplasma causes the infection toxoplasmosis, which is very common throughout the world, both in animals (especially cats) and in humans. In most cases people are infected by the parasite by eating poorly heated meat from infected animals, or through contact with cat feces. For people with impaired immune systems and for unborn fetuses, which are infected by their mothers, toxoplasmosis that has spread to the brain can be life-threatening. But most people who are infected only experience mild flu symptoms at the onset of the infection, before it enters a chronic and dormant phase.

Now Antonio Barragan and his team for the first time show how the parasite behaves in order to get into the brain of its host. And as soon as the results of their research study were published the media interest exploded. Swedish newspapers, tabloids and television contacted the research group, as well as media in the rest of Europe, Asia, North and South America and Australia.

- In addition to newspapers such as The Independent and The Guardian, we were also contacted by popular science magazines such as National Geographic and Discover Magazine, and also by many bloggers, says Antonio Barragan.

How did you handle the media within the research group?

- I delegated a lot so we helped each other to answer the questions as best we could, says Antonio and nods towards his colleague Jessica Weidner, postdoc from the U.S..

- I think it was a cool experience that it suddenly was such a great interest in our research, it felt a bit like winning a championship, says Jessica.

Why do you think the interest was so extensive?

- I think it depends on that this is such a common infection; approximately 30-50 percent of the world's population carries the parasite. Many people have to do with cats and can easily relate to this disease, plus it is also linked with common mental disorders *, Antonio says, adding:

Antonio Barragan, to the left, and his research group: Jonas Fuks, Jessica Weidner and Sachie Kanatani.(Maria Hernandez is missing in the photo.)- Also, it was an unexpected discovery we made when we realized that Toxoplasma can manipulate cells in the immune system and cause them to produce the neurotransmitter GABA, which is normally only found in the brain. The neurotransmitter then makes the infected cell to start moving in the body, for example to the brain - a very smart way for the parasite to spread.

What advantages and disadvantages do you see with the attention?

- It was positive that our research area became the focus. Parasitic infections are often seen as diseases of the poor and here in Sweden, for example, it is hardly believed that such diseases exist, despite the fact that we in recent years have had large outbreaks of Cryptosporidium and that the tapeworm Echinococcus multilocularis recently established itself in the country, says Antonio, who hopes that the attention helped to increase public awareness about parasites, an awareness that is needed in the context of increasing globalization. And we must not forget that 15-20 percent of Swedes carry Toxoplasma today.

- The downside of the attention was that our basic finding - which is how the parasite Toxoplasma spreads in the body - was a bit overshadowed. It was a variable quality of the reporting and the journalists often returned to the behavioral changes that the parasite can cause, which we have not looked at.

One of the reasons that Antonio Barragan has chosen to do research on Toxoplasma is because he learns about three exciting areas and their interactions at the same time: parasites, the immune system and the nervous system. His research group is now proceeding with the studies of the parasite's mechanisms - which they believe may also apply to other similar parasites. Among other things, the researchers want to find out which molecules Toxoplasma injects into the host cell to take command of it.

- Toxoplasma is today an intractable parasite, but by learning about how the parasite spreads in the body, we can begin to think of ways that can help to prevent the spread, says Antonio.

* A wide range of studies from different parts of the world have shown that disorders such as schizophrenia, depression and anxiety disorders are more common in people who carry Toxoplasma. In these diseases there are disturbances of the GABA system in the brain. Causality in relation to Toxoplasma infection has not been established.

Media Handling - advice to other researchers from Antonio Barragan

  • Express yourself simply and concise, as you would at the kitchen table at home.
  • Avoid scientific terms.
  • Speculate as little as possible.
  • Stay on the topic and to factual arguments.
  • Focus on the answers instead of the questions, then it is easier to bring your own message through.

Text: Lisa Hagsten